September 27, 2009

Looking for deportees in the Zona 19

About a month ago, I met a deportee, Andy, at the airport in Guatemala City. He was tall, well-dressed, and had his beard shaved into a goatee. He looked as though he had spent most of his life in the US. Turns out he had. He barely remembered Guatemala, as he left here with his father when he was just a child.

Andy told me his story while we were at the airport, waiting for him to be processed. He had gotten into a verbal argument with his girlfriend while they were on the highway. She began to hyperventilate and demanded he call an ambulance. When the ambulance showed up, she told the police officer he had threatened her and had hit her. Andy was taken into custody, and sentenced to six months in jail for domestic violence.

When his jail term was up, the police turned Andy over to immigration agents. Although Andy’s father is a legal permanent resident and Andy qualified for legal status, he had never followed through with the paperwork. He owned his own business in Arizona, and didn’t need a green card to work. So, he let his paperwork slide, and fell out of status. He became an undocumented immigrant. When the immigration authorities figured this out, they placed him in deportation proceedings. That’s how Andy ended up at the airport, after over thirty years in the US, with four US citizen children, and few family ties in Guatemala.

I asked Andy if I could contact him in about a month to see how he was doing. He didn’t have a phone number, but gave me an address in Zona 19 of Guatemala City. I told him I’d stop by in a few weeks.

Today, Nory, my research assistant, and I made our way to the Zona 19. The address Andy gave me is in a working-class part of the Zona 19, not the poorer parts that are on the peripheries, but not the best part of town either. On the way there, we passed through the local market and by a cantina on the corner. There was an old man selling fruits on the opposite corner.

When I got to the address, I was a bit surprised. There was no number on the door, and the place look halfway-constructed. From the outside, it appeared as if the house had a makeshift roof, and the metal door on the outside was composed of several pieces of metal put together. It was clearly the poorest house on the block. We knocked on the door and an old lady answered, through a small hole. She told us she had lived there for less than a month, and that she did not know where the previous occupants were.

We decided to try the neighbors’ door. A woman answered the buzzer over the intercom. Nory told her we were looking for Andy next door. The lady appeared to know who we were talking about, but told us she had no information on where he was. At the house on the other side, a young man quickly told us he had no idea who Andy was or where he lived.

There are several possible explanations for this – the most obvious being that the address was simply wrong. However, the lady on the intercom appeared to know who Andy was. Plus, the new occupant told us she had lived there for less than a month – meaning she would have moved in shortly after Andy arrived.

Nory speculated that Andy may have had to move to avoid extortion. The part of Zona 19 we were in is well-known for its criminal enterprises. It is conceivable that the local extortionists found out that Andy had come from the US and he had to move to avoid paying them.

He might have also moved because the house was in bad conditions, and he could afford to move with his aunt to somewhere more comfortable. Andy spoke perfect English and may have gotten a job in a call center, allowing him to pay for a better apartment.

It is odd that the neighbors told us they had no idea who he was. Andy does not look like a typical Guatemalan, and he would have called attention to himself by his height, his clothes, and his way of speaking. It is unlikely that no one would have noticed his coming.

We will probably never know what happened to Andy, but it was quite an adventure to go out to the Zona 19 to try and find out.

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